Why Speaking Up is Critical to Building a Culture of Openness and Trust

Mr. Stephen Tjoa, Senior Advisor, Influence Solutions Pte Ltd, shares steps to build an organisational culture of trust.

07 Jan 2022 Articles Work-life harmony Trending Best practices Future of work

Many organisations today have placed trust at the top of their boardroom priorities. Building trust is critical for both internal stakeholders (i.e., the employees) and external parties (i.e., clients and all other communities the organisation interacts with). 

Our current global situation has accelerated the need to build greater trust because the concept of work has transformed radically. The traditional notions of a five-day, 9am to 5:30pm work schedule, traditional hierarchical structures, working arrangements, ideas about diversity and inclusion and having permanent staff in the workforce have all been subjected to a significant rethink and reset.

The New Normal is here to stay. For organisations to remain viable and competitive, they must be willing to embrace change in a big way. Change, however, cannot happen without trust at the core of the organisation’s operating philosophy.

One of the important tenets of trust is creating a culture of speaking-up. This can only be achieved by giving room and psychological safety for individuals and teams to share feedback openly, even if it is to challenge a policy, call out behaviour that is inconsistent with the organisation’s core values, or simply, share a radical idea. According to research by Google, the number one trait of high performing teams is in fact the presence of psychological safety.

A climate of mutual respect and openness is necessary for idea generation, innovation as well as in ensuring the appropriate checks and balances. It also inspires staff engagement and a sense of well-being especially when physical human connection is being curtailed. 

With the meteoric adoption of flexible work arrangements due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is significant evidence to suggest that the blurring of lines between work and personal life is even more apparent. Employers may question if employees are truly working, and employees are burnt out and fear being negatively perceived if they share mental well-being concerns or personal challenges. Mutual trust between employers and employees is the critical missing piece in these scenarios. 

To make work-life harmony a permanent feature in today’s work realities, leaders must first consider what it takes to inspire mutual trust and respect when it comes to encouraging dialogue and an open culture.
Here are a few considerations:

Developing ground rules to allow input and feedback to flow freely across the different levels of the organisation, without reprisal.

This can be achieved for as long as the caveats are adhered to. These may include respecting the views of others by not dismissing ideas or interrupting the sharing; giving everyone equal opportunity and time to share their views; discussing feedback in the open, and not behind closed doors; clear communications to follow post-discussions, on what the next steps are.

Role-modelling by leaders.

Leaders must lead by example by aligning themselves strictly to the core values. They establish psychological safety for their team members by encouraging open and honest communication. Leaders can also make their sharing personal by corporate storytelling or demonstrating vulnerability. These approaches will reinforce the idea that “we’re all in it together”. This will instantly build trust in a significant way.          

Engaging an external mediator/facilitator.

In our experience as consultants, we have seen how teams feel less intimidated if external help is brought in to facilitate sessions especially on building trust and psychological safety. It enhances the level of objectivity in the process by reinforcing boundaries and navigating the desired outcomes of greater trust and open conversations. The consultant can also serve as a mediator between staff and management if the issue is particularly sensitive.

Celebrating successes.

To reinforce the culture of openness and trust, it is important that successful outcomes are celebrated. This would include rewarding staff for their contributions and implementation of ideas. In addition, employers can showcase real-life examples of idea adoption for greater impact. The key here is to have successes publicly recognised and communicated to the organisation at large.

Enforcing and reinforcing.

When there is an agreement and shared purpose on the trust agenda, leaders must be seen enforcing the agreements made. This is to make everyone (including the CEO)  accountable to the spirit of the law regardless of their corporate level.

Finally, as with any programme, it is good practice to measure the outcomes by instituting climate and people surveys, reviewing exit interview data or staff engagement and retention statistics and analysing any other people-related data to support and refine the programme where necessary. While building a culture of trust and openness requires a strong commitment of time and effort from the employer, it is a worthwhile investment that supports healthy and sustainable organisational growth and employee well-being.  

This article was written as part of the efforts of the Alliance for Action on Work-Life Harmony, which aims to increase public awareness of the importance of work-life harmony and work with community stakeholders to co-create work-life harmony initiatives.